When Michael Lewis published Moneyball in 2003, it instantly became one of the most influential books about American sports in a generation. Michael Lewis, normally a financial writer, analyzed how baseball’s Oakland A’s managed to consistently produce highly competitive teams despite a payroll that was a fraction of their biggest rivals. From 1999 -2006, the A’s finished either first or second in their division, and won over 100 games in both 2001 and 2002. They won more games than any team in baseball other than the Yankees during that period, but had one of the smallest payrolls in baseball.
The protagonist in Moneyball was A’s general manager Billy Beane, who looked at potential baseball players in a completely different way from other GMs. From Lewis’ perspective, Beane was doing what any good executive should do – trying to bring rationality to a completely irrational market. Beane saw that the market for high-end free agents was over-inflated, and the rational tools (primarily baseball statistics) for properly valuing players were underutilized. Beane was able to use those tools to find outstanding players that were completely overlooked by other teams at a fraction of their market cost.
It would be difficult for Football managers to mimic Beane’s methods in their player selection. Beane relied far more on stats than on scouting to make his decisions, and football does not have the same voluminous stats to hand over to some PhD to find hidden gems. However, there is one manager who has replicated Beane’s unconventional thinking and has consistently produced winning teams for a fraction of what his rivals spend – Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger.
Arsenal has finished in the top four every year for the past decade, and under Wenger has collected three Championships, six FA Cups, and went undefeated for the 2003-2004 EPL season. He has done this while spending a small fraction of what his rivals have spent in the transfer market. If you add up all of Wenger spending since he joined the team in 1996 and subtract his sales in the transfer market over that time, his net expenditures are a measly £17 million – less than £2 million per year. Among the legendary players that Wenger has bought at a fraction of their market value are:
Patrick Vieira – £3.50 million
Robin van Persie – £2.75 million
Freddie Ljungberg – £3.00 million
Sol Campbell – 0 (free transfer)
Nicolas Anelka – £0.50 million
Cesc Fabregas – 0 (signed as youth)
Kolo Toure – £0.15 million
Thierry Henry – £10.50 million
As recently as this calendar year, Wegener seems to have strengthened his team by selling Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor for £39 million and buying Thomas Vermaelen and Andrei Arshavin for £25 million. When you consider that Arshavin cost Arsenal significantly less than what Liverpool spent on Glen Johnson, it really does seem like Wenger is attacking the market in a completely different way than his peers. So how does this manager, who not coincidently has a Masters Degree in Economics, maneuver so well in a completely irrational marketplace?
While Beane had some basic rules in analyzing players (value walks as much as hits, discount achievements made in high school, foot speed is overrated, body shape is meaningless, etc.), Wenger has not been so kind as to sit down with an author and lay out his techniques. However, looking over his career at Arsenal, you can come to see Wenger’s own Moneyball strategy. These rules include:
Never buy a star from the EPL, La Liga or Serie A. In fact, try to avoid buying players from these leagues that are in the starting XI of their team. The market has already overinflated their value and you wind up paying too much. There have only been a small handful of players that Wenger has plucked from these leagues, (not counting Sol Campbell on a free transfer and William Gallas as the ballast for the Ashley Cole deal), and two of his biggest transfer blunders (Francis Jeffers and Jose Reyes) have come via this route. Wenger, who has never paid more than £15 million for a player (but has sold a handful for more than £25 million), sees all big stars as drastically over-valued whose price has been driven up by teams like Chelsea and Real Madrid for whom money is no obstacle. Even if Chelsea or Real Madrid is not interested in the “massive” league player you are looking at, their buying power has artificially inflated that player’s costs.
Instead, look for great players in lesser leagues. Big bargains can be found in the Dutch Eredivisie, the Bundesliga, French Ligue 1, the Russian league and many other leagues that do not regularly broadcast their games into English managers’ living rooms. If the French, Dutch, German and Russian national teams are good, it should stand to reason that their domestic leagues should contain some of their future stars. Scouting these “lesser” leagues like the Swedish league (Ljungberg), Eredivisie (van Persie, Vermaelen, Overmars), Bundesliga (Rosicky, Lehman, Hleb), and Croatian League (Eduardo) can yield cheap gold. This is especially true in the French League, with its high emphasis on skill training and its low popularity in the European football world. Wenger has mined France for a wealth of talent over the year, including Manu Petit, Nicolas Anelka, Patrick Vieira, Gael Clichy, and Bacary Sagna among others.
Of course, to find these gems, you must scout them. Wenger has spent money to create the most detailed, professional scouting network of any team in the world. While most major clubs rely on youtube as their main scout, Wenger and his Chief Scout Steve Rowley have built an extensive network which scours Europe and the world looking at players in obscure places dozens of times before making a move. There is no team too minor for this network. Gael Clichy was discovered and signed playing for AS Cannes in France’s 3rd division. Arsenal even employs a full time scout in the US looking for the next opportunity. Wenger firmly believes that every great player started off somewhere obscure, and if he can find those players before they become valuable, the savings will pay for this scouting network many times over.
Once you scout them and sign them, you must train them. Arsenal’s investment in training is massive. Their London Colony training ground, built under Wenger’s close supervision, is state of the art and has become the training ground for the English National Team. From strength and fitness training to nutrition to the best video room set-up in England, Wenger has spared no expense in creating a facility to pour the skill into his hidden gems. Moreover, Wenger is notorious for integrating young players into the first team training at very young age. Fabregas has repeatedly talked about the experience of being a 15 year old trainee playing alongside Patrick Vieira every day in training.
Few teams want to invest in this type of scouting and training effort. It costs millions of pounds to build and maintain this system, and most teams are content to use that money to chase some well-known player from a major team. Yet, from Wenger’s perspective, this investment is cheap. Take just one player as an example. Kolo Toure was discovered in Africa and bought for £150,000. On the training ground, he was converted from a holding midfielder to a central defender. He spent two seasons learning his craft spending every day on a professional-style pitch at the Colony playing against Henry, Bergkamp and the rest of the Arsenal scorers. He then served six outstanding seasons as part of the Arsenal starting XI before being sold for £14 million, an increase of 9333% from his original purchase price. That one player, and his profit of £13.85 million, more than pays for the training ground and scouting network alone.
Thus, when a team like Liverpool spends £20 million for a known commodity like Robbie Keane and sells him again him six months later for £12 million, Wenger must shake his head in wonder. The loss on Keane could pay for a scouting network that would unearth several Robbie Keane’s over the next few years for a small fraction of what the Reds spent on Keane in the first place.
So why doesn’t every team follow Wenger’s economic model? In baseball, many teams copied Beane’s system to great affect (and to the determent of the A’s, which have not been as successful since Moneyball was published). Luckily for Wenger, the market for managers is just as irrational as it is for players. The Wenger system takes an investment of time as well as money that does not immediately create wins, and few teams seem willing to give their managers either of those things. Wenger had the good fortune to be hired by Arsenal vice-Chairman David Dein, a man who made his money as a commodities trader and who understood the utility of finding hidden value in the market. After winning the double in his first full year and profiting over £25 million in the forced sale of Anelka to Real Madrid, the Arsenal board gave Wenger carte blanche to set up this system and has had the patience (like any good investor) to avoid panicking when the results have dipped a little.
As Wenger looks for his third great team at Arsenal to finally be ready to battle for the big trophy, other mangers must wonder how he does it. But they don’t wonder too hard. They do not want to be distracted from their main task – badgering their board to free up money to buy the next big name that comes on the market.